Making the most of Russian regional archives

I have learned to keep my expectations for Russian archives low. This is not an insult to Russian archives. It is just reality.

So many records were destroyed intentionally and even more from battles during the world wars. Communists hated the White Russian soldiers so much that many of their records were destroyed. The White Russian soldiers, also known as Cossacks, represented the privileged who did not pay taxes and got the best in life. Russians who did not follow blindly in the communist state were imprisoned or killed while their family records were destroyed. The priests were treated the same horrible way. Lenin was God. Stalin was God.

Not many church records exist after 1919. Churches were demolished and burned. Records of birth, marriage and death were managed by the local government. Archive records up until 1919 are fully open to the public but so many records are missing.

I paid a researcher to study a great-grandfather’s family from the village records in Kursk Region. Only 10 years of records could be found between 1880-1919. I will never know about so many of his relatives because the village records are mostly gone. Unfortunately, my great-grandfather did not pass along much information about his family so I am really stuck in finding his siblings’ families.

Luckily, 27 years of records were found for a village in another neighborhood of Kursk region for another great-grandfather. I felt blessed when so much information was found on his relatives.

I have been required to use a professional researcher in Kursk Region because the archive office requires full names, specific dates and places for birth, baptisms, marriages and deaths. Other regional archives have searched for information on my family without having exact information.

The policy for releasing information from records after 1919 also can vary. My brother was able to visit a relative’s hometown and get records from the 1940s without showing ancestry. We cannot even prove ancestry to Russian archives back to our father because his last name was changed to his half-siblings’ surname when the family escaped Russia during World War II and he did not leave with a Russian birth certificate.

I know other regional archives will require proof of ancestry to release any information after 1919. I got my father’s birth information by e-mailing the city’s website contact person. The archive office for communist-era records will not release any information to me on my father’s siblings or cousins, who are dead.

That is why it is so important to have all the research possible done on your ancestors and relatives. Everyone thinks they know about the family through oral history. Family documents get faded as so does the accuracy of information over time.

If you have the luck of getting a friendly and helpful archive employee who will search records, you better have all the family information accurate on the names, dates, addresses and villages. It is not a good idea to waste archive office staff with inaccurate information. The staff will not go the extra mile for you.

Russian genealogy is a lot more complicated than others, thanks to destruction of so many records. It involves more creativity and less rigid thinking. Records for birth, baptism, marriage and death are not the only resources to research relatives. Records for census, residency, voting, tax, property and schooling and printed directories help fill in the gaps left from missing traditional records.

I have more information on my family from printed directories and residency records than the traditional records. It takes patience and an open mind to have success in Russian genealogy and family searches.

Next blog: How to write to Russian and Ukrainian archives for family records

Unsolved: Mystery of Russian regional archives

I am still trying to figure out if I love or hate Russian archives. It’s just as complicated as the country’s politics.

I’ve had a mixed experience with Russian archives. The first Russian archives I contacted was Kursk regional archives. The office responded to some of my requests by e-mail. Once, the office promised to send me a copy of my great-grandfather’s birth registry in the postal mail. It still hasn’t arrived in the mail more than a year later.

Then, the staff gave me a wrong patronymic name (middle name that represents the father’s first name). My mother remembered hearing of a different patronymic name for her great-grandfather. I thought archives would confirm the information. Luckily, a professional researcher confirmed my mother’s information.

I have tried to get Kursk archives to respond to more requests by e-mail. My luck has run out. But luckily, the archives did not charge me anything for finding my great-grandfather’s birth registry or searching for other records that could not be found.

The archive office in Kostroma Region in central Russia has not been very helpful. But it is partly my fault. I gave the wrong information for my first requests sent by e-mail. By the time I had the right village name for my grandfather, the archive office stopped answering my e-mail messages. Thankfully, I was never charged for any searches.

Then my most interesting experience has been in southern Russia. The regional archive office has found some wonderful information for me, but also provided me with information I never requested. Half the time, I already had the information.

In the same region, I received some great information from an archive office in my father’s hometown. My brother visited the city out of curiosity and the archives to help me. I received Nazi-occupation period residency records, which listed all the homes’ occupants, their birthdate and birthplace. This is valuable information when so many records were destroyed in two world wars, tragic events and communist pillaging.

Right now, I want to smack someone at the regional office. I sent money by Western Union in early September. An employee still has not picked up the money. I sent three e-mail messages and then a letter by postal mail. I even had a local resident call the employee who told me to send the money by Western Union. She said it was not her responsibility.

I got an e-mail message earlier this month from an employee asking for the Western Union transfer number, even though it was on the letter. Still, the money has not been collected. Apparently, the archive office does not want my money. I thought it was bad when it took two weeks to pick up my Western Union money over the summer. I had a friend in Moscow call the office to tell the staff to pick up my Western Union money and a few days later the money was collected.

Russian archives prefer money be sent by bank transfers. That is not possible in my situation. My bills have ranged around 600 to 800 rubles, which equals to $19 to $25 American dollars. I cannot send that amount as a bank transfer because my bank requires a minimum of $100 American dollars to be sent abroad.

So, I use Western Union. The archives in southern Russia said they accepted money by Western Union but I never expected it would be so difficult. One time, I sent an extra 1,000 rubles so I would not need to send so many Western Union transfers. I was told to send only money to cover a bill. Dealing with Russian archives is like a novel with lots of twists and turns.

Next blog: What to expect from Russian archives. This blog will be posted  tomorrow.

Ship passenger arrival records are keys to information

Finding my grand uncle’s ship passenger arrival record was truly the key to discovering more information on him and his immigration experience.

The process of getting his ship passenger arrival record was long. I searched for him using different spellings on ancestry.com. The website did not have his record even though I have found so many relatives’ records on ancestry.com.

I knew my grand uncle arrived at a New York City port around the early 1950s because I have photos of him with his sister’s family in New York City. He also arrived in the USA after his sister’s family so that eliminated searching an extended time period.

So, I ordered a reproduction of his record from NARA, the US national archives, for the bargain price of $25. NARA provides the records on CD or paper for arrivals by plane or ship from 1820 to 1959. It takes about 2 to 3 months to receive the record in the mail. You will need to register on NARA’s website.

I provided everything I knew- possible spellings of his name, birth date, birthplace, nationality, marital status, race and port of departure. I don’t know how NARA managed to find him based on this information. I did not know the name of his passenger ship, port of arrival or date of arrival.

His ship passenger arrival record gave me the name of the passenger ship, place of departure, date of departure and arrival, and his registered address for the USA. I had no idea why he was scheduled to move near Chicago when his sister’s family lived in New York City.

I assumed he was able to arrange a sponsor in the New York City area. The research into my family has taught me to assume nothing and expect nothing is simple or explainable.

It was great to my find my grand uncle’s record. Then, I wanted more than some random facts about him on a list. I e-mailed the regional archives office where he lived most of his life in the USA. By luck, the office had his application for naturalization.

I already knew most of the information listed on the application, except for his Alien number and sponsors’ names. I knew he was naturalized as a German citizen from his mother’s ancestry but he put himself down as Russian. My grand uncle probably knew putting down the least controversial nationality for immigration applications would make the process easier.

I was disappointed the regional archive office only had a two-page document on my grand uncle. The process of immigration is a long and documented process so there had to be more records on him. Then, I learned about the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services’ genealogy program for Alien files.

My grand uncle arrived five months too late for his file to become part of the program so I applied for his file with a Freedom of Information Act request. When I finally got his file, I learned how important it was to get his ship passenger arrival record.

See also: Seven months worth waiting. This completes my story about learning more about my grand uncle.

Here is NARA’s page on ship passenger arrival records.

Fun Website- Distance Calculator

In my search, I sometimes find some fun websites that somehow become useful.

Check out the Distance Calculator. At first, I thought the website was fun for killing boredom. Then, I realized a distance calculator would give me some perspective where my family lived and how much effort it took to move around the Soviet Union, escape the place and immigrate to the USA.

Both sides of my mother’s family came from Kursk Region in central Russia. After I was able to figure out how to spell both families’ villages in English, I learned they lived about 35 miles from each other.

Then I decided to calculate the distance from the villages to Kiev, where they later moved. It is 250 miles. That is quite a hike in the early 1900s.

I also have used the Distance Calculator to determine how far my grandma was born from Kiev. She says she was born in Kiev but she was really born 12 miles away. Also, it has been interesting to see how far my relatives had to travel to see their family for special occasions.

The Distance Calculator is very user friendly. After you type a few letters, matches will appear and then change as you get closer to spelling the full name of a location.

The website can be fun and useful, especially if you try to calculate the distance between the places where your ancestors lived and where their descendants later lived.

Success in Germany is a learning experience

I finally received an answer from local archives in Kaufbeuren, Bavaria, Germany. I sent an e-mail message Sunday night and overnight I received a record documenting my mother’s brother birth.

Now, I know what it takes to receive an answer back from local archives in Germany. I sent EIGHT document scans to the archive office. I sent my marriage license, my birth certificate, my mother’s marriage license, an official statement my grandfather signed saying he married my grandmother and had my mother, a document showing the family’s address in Kaufbeuren to prove residency, my uncle’s birth certificate, my grandfather’s death certificate and my grandfather’s identity card from Kiev. I also included my home address, also something I did not provide in previous e-mail messages to the archive office.

Pretty much I gave all that was needed for someone to steal my identity. Ironically, Germans are touchy about privacy but they expect you to provide so much information about yourself that your own privacy is ignored.

After all this effort of scanning documents and e-mailing my family’s information, I am so happy to get an answer. The e-mail message I sent Sunday night was the fourth message since September 2010 to Kaufbeuren archives. I also sent messages in September 2010, March 2011 and September 2011.

I did not learn a lot about my family from the document I received, but I learned a few things. My uncle was first identified as Wilfried, not Wlodimir as stated on his birth certificate. Wlodimir is the German spelling of Vladimir. I do not think my uncle even knows about his “first” name.

The document also gave me the address of the hospital where my uncle was born and the time he was born- noon. My grandmother remembered a full day of labor and the unhappy German nurses who had to care for her. After my grandmother gave birth to my uncle, a nurse forcefully dropped my uncle onto her stomach. The nurse had no idea my grandmother was half German and Russian.

Now, if I only knew how my grandparents picked Wilfried. The name derives from will and peace, maybe something my grandparents needed during a world war and after famine and communist terror in Ukraine.

Now, my adventure in German archives continues in Kochel, Germany, near the northern border of Austria. I hope some documents are found in archives so I can learn more about my family’s life in Germany during the war.

Finding free photos of Russia and Ukraine

Thanks to satellite technology and the vanished Iron Curtain, photos of Russia and Ukraine can be easily seen.

Several free websites offer photos around the world. The selection of photos for Russia and Ukraine online is remarkable for cities, small towns and even villages.

Panoramio is one wonderful website to find photos. You will need to know the region (oblast) of the village, town and city that you are searching. Villages are preceded with the word derevnya on Panoramio.

Luckily, Panoramio can be searched in English. It also can be searched in Russian but the search results will be returned in English. If you do not know how to spell the region’s name, you can  search by name of the community and a list communities with the same name will appear with their regions.

To search for a place, list the village/town/city first, region second and Russia or Ukraine last. Panoramio does not have photos of every village, naturally, but it will show satellite views of communities that do not have photos.

If Panoramio does not have photos of the community you would like to see, check out Foto Planeta. This website requires use of Russian. Each community can be found in this format Russia or Ukraine> region> neighborhood> village or town.

Foto Planeta also gives the exact location of villages and town by latitude, longitude and altitude, a list of nearby villages and towns and the times for sunrise and sunset of the current day.

Here is a sample page from Foto Planeta’s on a village for one of my great-grandfathers. If you download Google Translate, it will be easier to use the sample page to find villages and towns of your relatives and ancestors.

Click on Russia from Start > Russia > Kursk > Rila district > Ivanovo on the top of the page. Then, the page for the regions of Russia will appear. Click on Start if you are looking for photos of Ukraine.

Google has a large collection of photos in its image section. I really do not recommend using Google Images. The last time I used Google Images, I got a horrible virus on my computer that has the best firewall.

Get surname histories free easily

It’s hard to resist the websites that sell histories of Russian and Ukrainian surnames. Hardly any of the English language websites for surname histories have anything for Russian and Ukrainian surnames.

I paid for three surname histories from a Russian website. It was cheap -$10 American dollars each- because $1 American dollar equals 30 rubles. Spending money on the surname histories was a waste after I learned from a Russian friend that the website used too much space on the general history of Russia and granting of surnames.

But you can avoid my mistake and get most of the same information for free. The Dictionary of Russian Surnames is the best website for learning origins and significance of your ancestor’s surnames. The list of surnames covered is impressive. This website gives the meanings, different spellings over time and areas of Russia where the surnames are common.

Genway.ru’s directory of names also gives similar information, but the directory also includes percentage breakdowns for slavic ancestry of surnames.

The best print version of surname histories is Russian Heraldry and Nobility by Donald R. Mandich and Joseph A. Placek. The English language book is expensive at $135, but some library reference areas will have this book. The authors provide information on Russian surnames that were recognized for nobility. The book gives information on the first people known to carry the surname, different spellings over time and its meaning and provides an image and description of the coat of arms.

Similar information on coat of arms for Russian noble families- those families who were recognized for their service to the czars- can be found at gerbovnik.ru. The information is provided through scanned documents so Google Translate cannot be used to read the documents in English.

Another great website for surname histories is surnameindex.info. This website has an index of surnames mentioned in the Book of Boyars from the 17th century. The boyars were high-ranking men during feudal times. Learn more about boyars here. Surnameindex.info provides free scans from the Book of Boyars.

Surnameindex.info sent me scans of the listings for two surnames from my mother’s side. The book of Boyars listed Andrey Elyseev Trunov as a royal table servant and Gregory Mokeev Tyunin as a nobleman.

In Russia, surnames became a custom at the end of the 15th century, first among the princes and boyars, then the nobility. Surnames began to be given to the peasants after the abolition of serfdom in early 19th century.

With all the information provided on the above websites and Russian Heraldry and Nobility, you can write your own surname histories for free. Wikipedia has a page on some Russian surnames here in Russian and English that can help you find the cyrillic spellings of your family’s surnames.